More than 200 Siem Reap province villagers staged a protest in the provincial capital Monday to demand the release of four people jailed for nearly a year in a land dispute with a local RCAF official, villagers and officials said.
Provincial Governor Sou Phirin said he hoped to convince the court to release the detainees and that he intended to mediate in the land dispute personally.
Villagers claim they have for decades farmed the land in question: 20 hectares in Srah Khvav village in Banteay Srei district’s Tbeng commune. However, RCAF Deputy Provincial Commander Riem Sou has lodged criminal complaints accusing the villagers of trying to take the land from him.
Sou Phirin said Monday that he had met with the protesters outside his office in Siem Reap town and intended to help both sides reach a settlement.
“Now I am negotiating with the court officials to release the four villagers first because people should not be jailed over this conflict,” he said, adding that he expected a response from the court Monday evening.
A protester who declined to be named for fear of retribution said the demonstrators came from three villages, Srah Khvav, Skun and Tbeng, and that the land in question had been worked by 41 families since 1979. The woman added that the villagers do not trust the courts to resolve their dispute.
Siem Reap Provincial Court Judge Khan Sokhal said that since December he has been holding the four villagers, Prok Nhan, 57, Tan Tik, 26, Khan Soeurn, 28, and Hem Ram, 49, in jail on suspicion of grabbing the land.
“From my enquiry and the documents I have collected, it’s pretty clear the land legally belongs to the plaintiff,” he said, referring to the RCAF official. “Local authorities have confirmed this ownership too.” Riem Sou could not be reached Monday.
Tbeng commune chief Heap Tha, however, said that Riem Sou did not own the land, which was originally state forest.
Riem Sou, he added, was only granted an agricultural concession to the disputed land in 1997.